What Ebony story can teach journalists about covering sexual assault

Nearly lost amid this month’s coverage of an alleged cover-up of sex abuse at Penn State and reports about whether a comedian aptly apologized for joking about rape, was an update on Genarlow Wilson, a former standout Georgia high school football and track star who was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation in 2005.

Ebony Magazine published an online Q&A with Wilson, telling readers that the now 27-year-old is about to graduate from Atlanta’s Morehouse College, “the black Harvard of the South.” The piece, written by Chandra Thomas Whitfield, sparked such a backlash that editors of the magazine were forced to apologize twice and change the headline before eventually removing the story altogether from its website.

Thomas Whitfield is a personal friend and we agreed to disagree about some aspects of how the story was presented. We agree, however, that her instinct to report an update to this controversial case was on target.

Ebony’s coverage of Wilson can serve as a case study for how journalists should, and should not, cover criminal offenders while providing readers with a greater understanding of the issue of sexual abuse.

The background

Wilson was acquitted of raping an unconscious 17-year-old girl, but convicted of aggravated child molestation of a 15-year-old girl. The legal issues in the case and the ultimate appellate court decision that freed Wilson after serving two years of his 10-year sentence are posted here and here.

Ebony’s story, which is no longer available on its website, was troubling from the very start. Its headline — “From Notorious to Glorious: Why Genarlow Wilson Is No Child Molester and Never Was” — leaped from the top of the page in bold, regal script. The problem is, Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation. Even though he was released early, Wilson was never exonerated. Aside from being inaccurate, the headline also appears to both defend and excuse Wilson’s past actions.

Within hours, online criticism over Ebony’s four-page spread erupted in the comment sections on Ebony’s website and on Twitter and Facebook. The story, which some claimed gave Wilson the “star treatment” even led publications like hip hop magazine Vibe to question why Ebony, a woman’s publication, sided with a rapist.

Lessons for writers

Be specific

The language in the story – including use of the term oral sex — was too vague and does not reveal the truth of what happened in the case, according to Wendy Murphy, a leading victims rights advocate and adjunct professor at New England Law in Boston, where she runs the Judicial Language Project.

“How you tell the story of exactly who is the harm-doer and what is the nature of the harm matters,” Murphy told Poynter in a telephone interview. “The kinds of problems that I see in the project that I run at my law school are needless eroticism, such as calling what happened to her ‘oral sex,’ which is a highly erotic term that is widely understood as a description of pleasurable activity. Using a term that conveys pleasure when you’re describing a crime is always wrong, but particularly when there’s a child involved and especially when it’s highly erotic. It’s just the wrong descriptor.”

Being too vague “gives readers too many alternatives in their brains to latch onto as the truth of the story,” added Murphy. “For most of us, the narrative we read into a story is that which feels most common or the one that’s already in our brain as the thing we conjure up when we hear a certain phrase,” she said. “So when the narrative, collectively, is already off-kilter, and it’s repeated, the problem of vagueness is that it indulges a false understanding by allowing the reader’s narrative to take over the truth.”

Use the active voice

Thomas Whitfield won two Journalist of the Year awards — one from the Atlanta Press Club and another from the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists — for a 2006 story she wrote about Wilson’s conviction for Atlanta Magazine. Her reporting, along with stories produced by other news organizations, led Georgia lawmakers to pass legislation making the type of crime for which Wilson was convicted a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

In both the long-form story and the Ebony update, Thomas Whitfield states that a 15-year-old victim willingly “performed oral sex” on Wilson and several other males at a New Year’s Eve party. Besides the fact that legally, in Georgia, a 15-year-old cannot consent to oral or any other kind of sex, the term, “performed oral sex” not only eroticizes a crime but it also eliminates the subject of the story, in this case Wilson, from the report, Murphy said.

“When you write about her being a receiver of past harm and he, as the subject, isn’t even in the sentence, it’s almost like he takes no role, no responsibility morally, legally or otherwise because he’s just not present in that style of writing,” she added. “That’s completely separate from what I saw to be the overarching concern of Ebony referring to him as glorious.”

“Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this was the only bad thing [Wilson’s] ever done in his life and he’s behaved perfectly ever sense. It’s still a part of who he is and part of his story because he was prosecuted in a public forum for committing a serious public offense,” Murphy continued. “And, is it ever appropriate to call a guy with that kind of background glorious? Reasonable people think he’s a nice guy but you’re telling a story about him because of where he’s been and what he’s done … If you call him glorious, maybe you’re not celebrating him for what he’s done but you’re clearly not condemning it.”

Lessons for editors

Cover all sides of a story, even in a Q&A

Thomas Whitfield, who didn’t expect there to be such an outcry over the Ebony story, said she never intended the piece to be an in-depth retrospective on Wilson.

“It was just to show where he is now, an opportunity for him to talk about his life and what he’s been doing over the last few years,” she said. She assumed that people who read Ebony’s story would already be familiar with Wilson’s case, which is her explanation for why many details about the original case were not included in the Ebony.com update.

Providing context, even in a simple pull-out box containing a brief summary of the legal questions and findings in the case, may have saved Ebony some grief. Not all, but some. Thomas Whitfield said adding such a pull-out box would have been an editor’s decision.

Writers can, and online editors should, ensure all angles of a story are covered. That can be achieved even by using links.

All appellate decisions are instantly available, for free, in court databases, Murphy said. These documents can be linked inside a Web story just as Poynter did at the top of this analysis.

Journalists “think the court has two sides, the court tells both sides and the truth somehow comes out,” Murphy said. “And in journalism we tell both sides of a story and the reader kind of gets the truth, which emanates from our storytelling. In fact, in legal proceedings, it’s not usually even designed to produce the truth. Legal cases, especially in our legal system where its adversarial at its core, are designed to produce a winner, not the truth. I’m not making a nasty observation; this is the very proud heritage of our system. The truth isn’t even the goal.”

But it is a journalist’s goal.

Respond quickly and with an open mind

It took Ebony’s editors 48 hours to formally respond to a flood of outraged readers after the Wilson story was first posted. That’s too long.

The tone of the magazine’s first apology was defensive. It read, in part: “At EBONY.com, in particular, we are largely a female editorial team and take pride in our consistently progressive stance on women’s issues. To suggest otherwise, simply means that you are not familiar with this website.”

The statement continued to instruct readers that they were wrong for charging EBONY.com with being an apologist for black men, and while the magazine took responsibility for providing only a “glimpse” of the case and not asking Wilson some tough questions about the night the crime happened, editors then stated that they do not believe Wilson is “either a rapist or child molester,” despite his criminal conviction on the latter.

“They basically blew us off and said, ‘We’re women and we’re journalists so you should trust us,’ ” said Gina McCauley, who orchestrated a full-scale online protest against Ebony’s Q&A. “What they don’t understand is that the point of the Internet is that we don’t have to trust journalists. You’re not entitled to our trust, you have to earn it. And you don’t earn it by putting up inaccurate, misleading articles.”

Know the power of social media

Readers can be allies or enemies. McCauley, who has been writing about Wilson for the past five years, said that readers of her blog, “What About Our Daughters,” first alerted her to Ebony’s article. She sent out “a Code 10, all hands on deck” message to followers on her Facebook fan page, who galvanized to shame Ebony. When that didn’t appear to work, McCauley’s followers then started contacting Ebony’s advertisers, including consumer goods conglomerate Unilever.

McCauley told Poynter in a telephone interview that the campaign against Ebony is a success because the article about Wilson is gone. “I understand the criminal justice system is just chewing up black men and shuttling them into the system, but the victims of black-on-black crime need justice too,” said McCauley, who is also a lawyer.

“Some of the messages we’re sending about the Genarlow Wilson case are very damaging to teenage girls and very damaging to victims of sexual assault.”

“The problem isn’t Genarlow Wilson,” McCauley continued. “The problem is when we tell this story, we lie. The problem is that Ebony is doing the work of Genarlow Wilson’s publicists, not the work of journalists.

“…As soon as they realized that their title was untrue, the editors should have taken down the story,” said McCauley. “It’s pretty serious to misrepresent the criminal history of a convicted sexual predator.”

McCauley said at the very least the publication should have immediately issued a retraction or posted an opposing view to give readers a sense of balance. “We would have been happy with that,” she said. Poynter has written extensively on the practice of “unpublishing” stories and would advise journalists to consider a range of options, including correcting the mistakes transparently, adding other viewpoints, or doing additional stories to bring more context to the topic.

McCauley had this advice for Ebony’s editors: “One thousand readers, even if they are as dumb as a door knob, are going to be smarter than one editor just because of the collective knowledge,” she said. “If the Internet rises up and says you got this wrong, that’s the point [when] editors should ask themselves, ‘Do we have this wrong?’ Ebony didn’t do that.”

Lesson learned?

After more than a week’s worth of drama and scrubbing Wilson’s story from its website three separate times, Ebony released its final official response July 17 after removing the story for the last time. In that response, editors said they pulled the story because it had become a distraction from the publication’s “core mission to uplift and advocate for all members of the African American community.”

In a second apology entitled, “Moving Forward Together,” posted on the magazine’s website last weekend, editors announced that they are developing a three-part series to educate black America about sexual assault “and to provide a platform for the powerful voices of women who have been affected by rape and sexual molestation.”

“We encourage everyone to join this conversation,” the editors wrote.

Ebony didn’t say whether some of those voices in the conversation would belong to McCauley, other dissenters or even Genarlow Wilson. If editors can make that happen, they might be able to say something good came of all the mistakes.

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  • Anonymous

    I see major problems with your post as well.  My conclusion is it’s either incompetence or bias. Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I’d say you were biased and not incompetent, which is why I suggest you give up journalism and just move to become yet another partisan pundit.

  • Anonymous

    Tracie, your very first sentence was a misrepresentation and journalistic crime:

    “a former standout Georgia high school football and track star who was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation in 2005.”

    You leave it at the conviction and somehow have no room to tell of how he was released early because the legislature changed the law to make his crime a misdemeanor and the Supreme and Appeals court took note of that.

    Quit journalism, you’re an activist.

  • Anonymous

    Any article about rape that relies on Wendy Murphy is guaranteed to be a load of horseshit.

    Here are some quotes from Wendy on Duke Lacrosse:

    The Wendy Murphy File To suggest [the indicted players] were well behaved: Hitler never beat his wife either. So what?–“The Situation,” 5 June 2006I bet one or more of the players was, you know, molested or something as a child.–“CNN Live,” 3 May 2006I never, ever met a false rape claim, by the way. My own statistics speak to the truth.–“The Situation,” 5 June 2006

    More is easily found about this misandrist if you google wendy murphy duke.

    Shame on Poynter for giving air to her nonsense.

  • Tracie Powell

    Once again, I interviewed the writer and included her thoughts about Ebony’s coverage; that was my job and I did just that. If you want to complain about the lack of Ebony’s voice in this story, then direct those complaints to Ebony. Forcing Ebony’s editors to explain their decisions isn’t my job either. I can, however, ask them to respond and respect their position to remain silent, even though I disagree with that decision, 

    Your claims about bias on my part are unsubstantiated, therefore I won’t bother to respond. 

  • Anonymous

    Your  job is not to provide an unchallenge platform to Murphy and McCauley, which is exactly what you did. This coverage is more biased than anything Ebony published. And the worst part is it should covered the complexities of writing about a story like this. There is none of that in here. Just a megaphone for critics. I’m not saying the Ebony story was good. But it was better than this.

  • Tracie Powell

    itsawondefulworld, thanks for your interest. Your first comment stated that it was nice that I “reported on the coverage of Ebony Magazine, it’s difficult to side even with you on this..” Now you say that I focused too much on Mr. Wilson’s case despite every paragraph in the story mentioning and addressing the coverage. I think people interpret what they read differently, but you can’t have it both ways. The writer, in terms of how this story was played, suggested that answers about coverage come from editors. I went to the editors both before and after talking with the writer. The editors did not respond, I went to the public relations division of the magazine, who directed me to the statement on their website, which I used. That’s all I can do. I think you’re directing your disappointment at the wrong person. I strongly suggest you contact Ebony about decisions that were made surrounding this story; perhaps editors will be more responsive.

    As for why I said born and raised, it’s because other people live in Georgia and claim the status of resident, but weren’t born or raised there. As a native, I name it and claim it.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/SKDQDFNWPYH6M72ZFKU5DRYJQA kebs

    here ya go. it’s important you hear what she said.
    15 year old cannot consent to sex in GA.
    Why is it so difficult for some people to understand that a 15 year old cannot legally consent to any form of sex??? If a 15 year old walked in a tattoo parlor and wanted “thug life” on his chest, you would understand that the owner of that establishment should not even entertain that teens interest. If an 18 year old walked into a liquor store and asked for Vodka, the owner of that establishment is obligated to decline. Consent is not up for discussion because 15 year olds cannot consent. The law denies a 15 year old the legal ability to choose for a very good reason. Of course, I wouldn’t have thought so at 15, but at 30 it makes perfect sense.  Also, we tend to leave out the semi-conscious 17 year old girl who was gang raped and dumped in the restroom. Is she responsible for his actions because she was barely conscious? At what point do you ask yourself for Genarlow to use good judgment….what astute individual wouldn’t have twangs of dubiousness at the idea of passing around drunk and unconscious women and “sharing” them with friends?
    If you are truly “the first to come to the defense of a rape victim” you will understand that your argument is not about whether or not he was guilty but on the severity of the punishment. Again, his conviction was not overturned.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Tracie,

    Thanks for responding! I read your piece in full and I understand (and know) all of what you said. I think part of the problem with your piece (and this may be what the first responder had a problem with) it focuses too much on Mr. Wilson’s case and not enough on what about the piece was wrong – aside from the headline. While I understand this isn’t your fault, including more of the writer’s response would have been helpful in the even that the Ebony editors couldn’t respond. Also, random questions: Why do people feel the need to say they were “born and raised” in a particular place. Just asking as that seems to be the norm these days. Have a great day!

  • Anonymous

    Kesha,

    While I appreciate your response, I refuse to read pass the all caps. If you are a 30-year-old woman, please don reduce yourself to yelling on website. It’s comes across as childish. 

  • Tracie Powell

    Thank you Lincoln. 

  • Tracie Powell

    You raise several points, and I’ll attempt to address them:

    First, as a native of Georgia — born and raised — I too followed this case closely. Second, as I stated in this piece, my purpose was not to go into the legalities of the case — that is why I linked to secondary and primary sources so that readers could do so if they wanted. The purpose of this piece is to report on the way Ebony handled a still very controversial subject. Third, as also stated, in Georgia a 15 year cannot consent to sex, oral or otherwise, that’s state law, not my interpretation. It is also state law that sex orally is sex, that’s not my interpretation, it’s how the statute reads. Fourth, I talked with the writer of the story in an effort to ensure this was a well-rounded and fair piece. The writer is quoted. The writer pointed out that several questions I asked should and could be answered by editors, not her. Ebony declined several interview requests and they removed the story, so if you feel that Ebony’s silence and removal of the Q&A shortchanges readers, I suggest you take that up with Ebony. Finally, as I stated in the piece, there were other options to removing the story, Ebony chose this course of action just like Ebony’s editors chose not to talk with Poynter. Clearly, I wish they’d made other choices, but they didn’t. Thanks, Tracie

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=613933823 Lincoln Rose

    This was an excellent article. When the Internet rises up, it’s always good to try and draw a teachable moment from it.

    What I can’t abide are these rape apologists who must spend all day trolling the internet or using up Google Alerts for any mention of this case. Then they can come running to whine and try to blame everything on these girls.

    This is an article about improving journalists coverage of sexual assault issues, which are in dire need of skills building all over, not just at Ebony. I’m sure there must be an online support group somewhere where all you internet trolls paid by Genarlow Wilson’s handlers can go commiserate with each other about the raw deal you think he got.

    Again, excellent article. Thank you very much for this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=613933823 Lincoln Rose

    This was an excellent article. When the Internet rises up, it’s always good to try and draw a teachable moment from it.

    What I can’t abide are these rape apologists who must spend all day trolling the internet or using up Google Alerts for any mention of this case. Then they can come running to whine and try to blame everything on these girls.

    This is an article about improving journalists coverage of sexual assault issues, which are in dire need of skills building all over, not just at Ebony. I’m sure there must be an online support group somewhere where all you internet trolls paid by Genarlow Wilson’s handlers can go commiserate with each other about the raw deal you think he got.

    Again, excellent article. Thank you very much for this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1250011549 Kesha Warren

    Why is it so difficult for some people to understand that a 15 year old CAN NOT LEGALLY CONSENT to any form of sex??? If a 15 year old walked in a tattoo parlor and wanted “thug life” on his chest, you would understand that the owner of that establishment should not even entertain that teens interest. If an 18 year old walked into a liquor store and asked for Vodka, the owner of that establishment is obligated to decline. CONSENT IS NOT UP FOR DISCUSSION BECAUSE 15 YEAR OLDS CANNOT CONSENT. The law denies a 15 year old the legal ability to choose for a very good reason. Of course, I wouldn’t have thought so at 15, but at 30 it makes perfect sense.  Also, we tend to leave out the semi-conscious 17 year old girl who was gang raped and dumped in the restroom. Is she responsible for his actions because she was barely conscious? At what point do you ask yourself for Genarlow to use good judgment….what astute individual wouldn’t have twangs of dubiousness at the idea of passing around drunk and unconscious women and “sharing” them with friends?

    If you are truly “the first to come to the defense of a rape victim” you will understand that your argument is not about whether or not he was guilty but on the severity of the punishment. Again, his conviction was not overturned.

  • Anonymous

    While it’s nice that you reported on the coverage of Ebony Magazine, it’s difficult to side even with you on this. As a Georgian who followed the case, they, from my understanding, had  CONSENSUAL oral sex, not vaginal. So would that constitute rape as well?. Perhaps that was one of the questions answered in their piece. (Which, could have just used a headline change if that was what initially caused an uproar). Also, Ebony removed the story, so the readers of your piece are only getting a one-sided view, as you’ve accused Ebony doing in this scenario. I’m the first to come to the defense of a rape victim, but his case raises several questions that I would have liked to see addressed in the piece, but won’t since the reader isn’t given the opportunity to, it’s not fair to point the reader out these things when we weren’t able to judge for ourselves. It seems that people want to continue to label him a rapist or even child molester, when he isn’t that and had the original charge dropped. To me this isn’t about Ebony editors getting it wrong as much as it is about people once again failing to comprehend the law, which I’m sure Ebony’s piece would have highlighted. But the reader may never know. 

  • Tracie Powell

    This is a journalism site. My job was to report on the COVERAGE that appeared in Ebony, not to debate Georgia law or the legalities in Mr. Wilson’s case. There are websites and blogs for that, this just isn’t one of them. The fact that Ebony published a story and then removed it is the ‘basics’ of this story. 

    Thanks,
    Tracie

  • Anonymous

    This completely misses the basics of this story, which was that a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old had sex. It’s a bad headline, but more obscene is the law in Georgia that sent a child to prison for having sex with child essentially his own age. The fact that an ill-concieved law trapped a child in vicious penal system, does not raise the soapbox from which Murphy preaches, nor does it redeem the rabidity of those that attacked an appearently weak editing staff at Ebony.